Monthly Archives: April 2011

Will Allen and Growing Power

Today I want to write about an extraordinary farming project which has been an inspiration for me for about the last 7 or 8 years, Will Allen and the Growing Power project in Milwaukee. They have some things in common with the New Alchemy Institute but many very different aspects. Like the New Alchemists they are demonstrating that it is possible to grow a huge variety of food in cold climates in ways that are profoundly ecologically sustainable and restorative by making intelligent use of greenhouses and polytunnels. They use all possible vertical zones, with fish tanks extending five feet underground to baskets of salad crops suspended from the greenhouse roofs. The fish tanks also add thermal mass to stabilize temperatures and the fish help recycle nutrients. Composting and vermicomposting, or worm farming, is another vital element in the mix.

Will Allen and the Growing Power team have achieved something extraordinary in terms of social justice and social inclusion. Whereas the New Alchemy Institute was essentially an academic research project aimed at demonstrating the possibility of ecologically sustainable systems the Growing Power project has at its core the poor urban inner-city community in Milwaukee. Will Allen, a 6ft 7in, black, ex basket ball player turned urban farmer, teamed up with the Growing Power, an organisation working with inner-city teenagers, and from 1993 they started having a dramatic effect on the city of Milwaukee. Their goal is to “grow food, to grow minds and to grow community.” This is mass participation food production, with thousands of volunteers and visitors helping grow food and work together to improve the diets and prospects of people in the inner-city.
Growing Power headquarters is a two acre farm which employs about 36 people. This is not farming as we know it: they run courses, do community outreach, help a network of farmers market their produce, run a shop and far too much else to mention, and they do grow a lot of food sustainably in a cold climate! They have been a beacon of hope for me, and the four links below are well worth looking at if you are looking for evidence that food systems can be much more ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive.
See their website
And see this video clip of Will Allen
This week they have just agreed a partnership with the City of Milwaukee to create 150 more full-time urban farming jobs.
Will Allen, Good Food Manifesto for America.

Super Greenhouses

(New Alchemy, Prince Edward Island 1976)
The last blog but one, on 8th March, I raised the question of how to feed humanity in radically more sustainable ways, and set out some of the criteria I think will be important to the future of farming. In the next couple of blogs I want explore how to grow a wide variety of fruit and vegetables year round in cold climates. Protected cultivation in greenhouses and polytunnels is important, but currently commercial production often involves additional fossil-fuel derived heating, which often has a worse ecological footprint than air-freighted produce. We can do better. By adding thermal mass to the greenhouse we can even out the day to night temperature fluctuations and so reduce or eliminate heating. In my greenhouse here in Hereford I have a vast range of produce growing with tomatoes already a foot high. I use stacks of bricks to absorb heat in the day and to act like storage heaters giving off their heat at night and so protecting my crops from frost. I also use a small plastic greenhouse within a greenhouse, and sheets of bubble wrap to protect the most vulnerable crops. Others though have taken this concept very much further than I.
The New Alchemy Institute was founded in 1969 and wound up in 1991. At its zenith in 1976 it built two extraordinary greenhouses, one in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the other on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The Institute was founded as a research project by John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, and William McLarney, to study and design radically more ecologically sustainable ways of living. The greenhouses, bio-shelters, or arks as they called them, were experimental structures designed as living spaces and to produce food year round in cold climates including a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and also fish. Having large fish tanks in the greenhouses added thermal mass and so evened out the temperature fluctuations between day and night. They also generated on-site electricity with wind-turbines and photovoltaics, which in the mid-70s was pretty ground breaking, and they collected rainwater and recycled sewage. Their aim was to minimize waste and to free themselves from fossil fuel dependence. In 1976 they were an inspiration for me. I wanted to visit them but failed to get an American visa. The project was grant-funded academic research, and folded once the grants dried up.
For more about the New Alchemy Institute see, “A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design.” Nancy Jack Todd. Island Press. 2005